Gandhara – Visions of divinity

Visions of divinity

By Qazi Ijaz Ahmad

There are several foreign motifs in Gandhara Art. These include caryatids, Atlantes, Persipolitan and Corinthian pillars, fire altars and many other elements from Greece, Persia and Rome. – Photo by the writer

Pakistan is home to two great ancient civilisations, namely the Indus Valley and the Gandhara civilisations. The unique and magnificent culture of this part of the world owes a lot to them.

Gandhara is an ancient school of art which emerged from the small kingdom of Gandhara located in a region that we now know as the Peshawar Valley. The region boasted of a remarkable cultural romance. Through the missionary zeal of the Mauryan king, Asoka (272-37 BC) Buddhism was introduced into the area. The Mahayana sect of Buddhism was born here during the reign of Kushana king, Kanishka (1st century AD). Under his patronage, this liberal and progressive branch of Buddhism spread from Gandhara to distant lands.

In classical Buddhism, Buddha was regarded as a great ascetic teacher who wandered around preaching his thoughts. As he was not a divine entity, he was represented symbolically. In the new or later school of Buddhism, Buddha was elevated to the status of a deity and had a human representation. His image was created and carved in large numbers to be placed in monastic buildings as an object of worship. This was the genesis of Gandhara Art, pieces of which are now on display at Peshawar Museum, Dir Museum Chakdara, Swat Museum, Taxila Museum and Lahore Museum.

The pieces have been dexterously chiselled and are easily identifiable because of their unique regional character, proportions and beauty. The material used for making these sculptures is chalicose schist stone, which was abundantly available in the region in the days of yore. Western scholars call this type of art Greco-Buddhist or Romano-Buddhist, seeing influences of Greek or Roman workmanship. However, some local scholars believe that it’s purely indigenous.

Gandhara Art is entirely religious in nature with Lord Buddha as its central figure. He is shown as a man wearing the monastic robe, and is usually endowed with certain marks of distinction such as a halo, an Ushnisha (top-knot) or an Urna (a mark between the brows).

These images are frontal and the Buddha is shown as a simple, austere, dignified and sober monk with a serene face. The eyes are half-closed, the earlobes long and the drapery covers both the shoulders. He is portrayed in various poses (standing, sitting or, in narrative reliefs and panels, gesturing with his hands).

Apart from this, princely Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) images were also carved in the art of the Mahayana school. These are recognised by a specific dress style. The Bodhisattva images are fully bejewelled and dressed in royal drapery covering the left shoulder. Avalokiteshvara is the most prominent and revered of the Bodhisattvas. He is known as the Bodhisattva of compassion and was worshiped as a god. He is easily recognised as he has a Buddha image in his headdress.

The Buddhists believe in the cycle of rebirth. In their religious tradition, there are some stories called Jatakas related to the previous births of Buddha, in which he assumes different forms (human and animal). But in Gandhara Art, the life story of Buddha is more popular than Jatakas. It is the distinction of Peshawar Museum that all episodes of his life, from birth to death, are displayed in a proper sequence and order. The most attractive and unique figure is the emaciated Siddhartha, which has been exquisitely carved by the sculptors.

Prince Siddhartha practised an ascetic life for about six years and did not take any food due to which he became weak. In this figure the hair falls in a disorderly fashion, the cheeks are wrinkled, the eye sockets are deeply sunken and the ribs are clearly visible. The fasting Buddhas displayed at Lahore Museum and Peshawar Museum are perfect examples of naturalism in Gandhara Art.

There are several foreign motifs in Gandhara Art. These include caryatids, Atlantes, Persipolitan and Corinthian pillars, fire altars and many other elements from Greece, Persia and Rome.

There are also many domestic scenes of marriage, love-making, hunting, wrestling, groups of ascetics, musicians, kings riding on chariots, gods and goddesses, and Hariti and Panchika (the goddess of fertility and god of wealth). However, the personality of Buddha occupies a higher position than other forms in Gandhara Art. Miracles associated with him have also been carved beautifully.

This genre of art blossomed from first to sixth century AD, after which it disappeared from the land of its origin. Several factors caused its disappearance, such as the invasion of barbaric white Huns in the fifth century AD and the destruction of Buddhist establishments by them, lack of proper patronage, the revival of Hinduism and the emerging trend of using stucco and terracotta instead of schist for sculpturing.

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